Nature’s Notebook: Investigating the Science of Seasons

Nature’s Notebook is a citizen science project focused on the signs of the seasons. Participants can track the changes in plants and animals in their own backyards.

Observing phenology with Nature’s Notebook will teach you the science of the seasons. Photo credit: Brian F Powell
Observing phenology with Nature’s Notebook will teach you the science of the seasons. Photo credit: Brian F. Powell.

How do you know when spring arrives? Is it when the first flower buds appear on your favorite tree, when the daylight hours lengthen, or when the first day that you don’t need your winter jacket arrives? Though it’s difficult to put a finger on just when spring begins, being able to pinpoint when spring activities occur is important for understanding how seasonal events are changing.

The “firsts” that many people associate with spring, such as the timing of the first flower, the first butterfly, and the first bird nest are all examples of phenology. Phenology is the science of the seasons, and it involves study of when life-cycle events in plants and animals occur and how weather impacts these events.

You might notice that some plants put on their buds as soon as the days get warmer, while others stay dormant until the days get longer. Plants and animals have different drivers that influence when they move from one life cycle stage to the next. Some species take their cues from temperature, some from precipitation, some from day length, and some from a combination of all of these. Knowing when different seasonal events occur is useful for knowing when to plant or harvest crops, anticipating the start of allergy season, knowing when to visit a park to see wildflowers or animals, and more.

Scientists still have many questions about what drives life cycle events of different species and how much flexibility plants and animals have in their responses. This research is important because as the environment changes due climate shifts, habitat loss, and other factors, we don’t know how plants and animals will respond and adapt. Some species may be able to change when they flower, when they start building their nest, or when they enter their cocoon. Others may not be so lucky.  

The good news is that you can help scientists learn about phenology by paying attention to the activity of plants and animals and reporting your findings.

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) collects information about phenology from locations across the country, makes the information available in a publicly-accessible database, and shares it with people who need it in the format that is best for them.

The primary way that the USA-NPN builds the phenology database is through the Nature’s Notebook citizen science project, a plant and animal observation program. By signing up as an observer, you select a location such as your backyard, a nearby park, or another place you visit frequently. You select from a list of over 1,300 species of plants and animals. You tag plants to observe or create a list of animals to watch. Then you track the timing of life cycle events of your species, ideally a few times a week when things are active, using either a smartphone app or paper datasheets that you then enter into your computer.

You’ll find that observing phenology is not only important for science, but it also brings many personal benefits as well! For Nature’s Notebook observer Carol Lang, observing nature is a family tradition that goes back to the days her grandfather would sit on their farmhouse porch in Minnesota, watching and listening to activity in the surrounding pine forest. “Waiting for the migrating spring birds to arrive and seeing the first of the wildflowers brings me a sense of awakening,” said Carol. “I check daily to see what is peeking through the ground or who is at the feeders.”

Like Carol, for many people, observing phenology brings peace, comfort, and the feeling that they are answering a call to provide stewardship of the land. The majority of Nature’s Notebook observers participate because they appreciate feeling like they are contributing to a larger effort to understand how to address environmental change. The data collected by Nature’s Notebook observers have been used in over 60 scientific publications, helping researchers learn which species are more vulnerable to late season frosts, discover more efficient ways to manage invasive species, and more. Many organizations across the country, including nature centers, botanical gardens, wildlife refuges, and parks are using Nature’s Notebook to answer their own questions about how plants and animals are responding to change.

This spring, you can also investigate plant and animal phenology where you live. It’s easy to become a Nature’s Notebook observer. You can visit the project page on SciStarter to learn how you can get started.  

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Project Profile

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About the Author

Erin Posthumus

Erin Posthumus

Erin Posthumus leads USA National Phenology Network’s outreach and engagement efforts with Nature's Notebook observers and USA-NPN partners. She is also the USA-NPN's liaison to the US Fish & Wildlife Service and is working with National Wildlife Refuges across the country to implement phenology monitoring to meet their resource management goals.